The Correspondence of Mary Wortley Montagu

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge, with Oxford Scholarly Editions Online

Detail of a portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by Charles Jervas. c. 1718–20. Oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Ireland; source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)

Born in 1689, Mary was the eldest child of Evelyn Pierrepont (1667–1726), and Lady Mary Feilding (1668/9–1692). Raised initially by her maternal grandmother and subsequently, from 1698, by her father at Thoresby Hall, Nottinghamshire, she claims to have embarked upon the study of Latin when—in her own words—’everyone thought I was reading nothing but romances’.1 Following the death in 1710 of her friend and correspondent Anne Wortley, Anne’s brother Edward Wortley Montagu (1678–1761) continued this correspondence and, despite a number of family objections and pressure from her family on Lady Mary to marry another, as well as a rumoured ‘attachment’ to a man unable to marry her, he and Lady Mary eloped to Salisbury in the summer of 1712. The couple’s son, Edward Wortley Montagu the younger (1713–1776) was born nine months later, in the same year that Lady Mary’s only brother William died after falling ill with smallpox.

Following the death of Queen Anne and the accession of George I, the Wortley Montagus moved to London where, attendant upon both the king and prince of Wales, Lady Mary wrote a series of satirical ‘court eclogues’ and forged friendships with such literary figures as John Gay and Alexander Pope. Within a year, however, she too had contracted smallpox; although her survival defied expectation, she recovered to find that her ‘eclogues’ had been circulated without her knowledge during her illness and that one of these was interpreted by some at court as an attack on the princess of Wales, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach.

Lady Mary left London in August 1716 to accompany her husband on his diplomatic posting to Constantinople. The couple travelled overland. Lady Mary’s letters provide vivid accounts of this journey and she kept copies, intending to work her correspondence into a travel book. Although the embassy itself was brief—Edward was recalled just two years later—Lady Mary observed the local practice of the inoculation of children against smallpox and, with the help of the surgeon at the embassy, Alexander Maitland, she arranged for the inoculation of her own young son and, back in London in 1721, she persuaded Maitland, with attendant witnesses, to repeat the procedure for her daughter. Later that same year, Maitland administered the inoculation, under the observation of Hans Sloane, on six inmates at Newgate prison. The following year, the children of the prince of Wales were inoculated. Although she was not the first European traveller in Turkey to inoculate a child, she was the first to encourage the practice in her native land and to encourage others to follow her example.

During these years in London, Lady Mary composed a series of poems centred on society’s treatment of women and, for reasons that remain unclear, she fell out with Alexander Pope. In 1736, Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764) visited England where he was elected to membership of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, and he became the object of Lady Mary’s attention: she wrote extravagant love letters to him, she penned poems for him, and, after his departure, she set off for the continent herself in an attempt to arrange a rendezvous. For the next few years, even after all hope of a relationship had faded, Lady Mary moved somewhat erratically through Italy and France, often in response to the upheavals caused by the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1742 she settled in Avignon for four years, before spending what could be interpreted as a enforced residence in Brescia during which she was, in many ways, the prisoner of Count Ugolino Palazzi (1714–1765 or later). For the final six years of her travels, Lady Mary lived in Venice, where—despite unfortunate and ongoing feuds with both the British resident John Murray and the consul and collector Joseph Smith—she picked up again with a number of former friendships and correspondences and cultivated a new circle.

Despite a succession of significant family problems concerning their family and children, in particular their son, the younger Edward Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary and her husband Edward continued to correspond until his death in 1761. With the news that Edward’s will had been challenged by their son, and suffering from advanced cancer, Lady Mary made the journey back to England where, after a few months reestablishing herself in London, she died in August 1762 and was buried in Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street.


Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for the correspondence in this catalogue was collated for EMLO from Robert Halsband’s edition of The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu‘ (1965; full bibliographic details may be found below), which is available from Oxford University Press and, within a subscribing institution, on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. Cultures of Knowledge is grateful to EMLO Digital Fellows Alex Hitchman and Rhys Kaminski-Jones for their work to help prepare the inventory for upload, as well as to a dedicated, albeit anonymous, volunteer.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).

Further resources

Selected Bibliography

Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; Comet of the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; and available, within a subscribing institution, on Oxford Scholarship Online).

Isobel Grundy, ‘Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley [née Lady Mary Pierrepont] (bap. 1689, d. 1762)‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: essays, poems and ‘Simplicity: a comedy, ed. R. Halsband and I. Grundy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976; in paperback, 1993; and available, within a subscribing institution, on Oxford Scholarship Online).

The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965; and available within a subscribing institution, on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online).

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J. Spence, Letters from the grand tour, ed. S. Klima (Montreal, 1975), p. 357; and J. Spence, Observations, anecdotes, and characters, of books and men, ed. J. M. Osborn, new edn, 2 vols. (1966), no. 743.